Return to School: Safety Must be Priority

As with the economy, the government’s approach to the management of the impact of the pandemic on education, is to rush towards reopening for reasons other than the health and safety of learners, educators, staff, parents and communities. To proceed with sending learners back to school especially when Covid cases are surging is criminally irresponsible. The government’s first duty should be to save lives not the academic year.

At the time of writing 2,844 have died. On 2 July a new record was set, with 8,728 newly confirmed cases in one day. However, the government’s daily figures are increasingly meaningless. There is a shortage of testing kits and a backlog in test results. At the start of June, the Western Cape provincial government had already cut-back to only testing people aged over 55. The real number of cases is now anyone’s guess.

The working class endured the hardships of five weeks of ‘hard’ lockdown, told that it was buying time to prepare the health system. Instead, months before the expected August/September peak, the health system is under severe strain. In Eastern Cape, hospitals are already full. Within two weeks Gauteng is expected to be short 5,000 beds. Many hospitals are already on ‘divert’, unable to accept new patients. “Each day when we knock-off there are patients we leave on chairs because the beds are full”, an anonymous doctor at Tembisa Hospital told News24.

School Re-opening

This is the situation facing the country as schools re-open. On 8 June grades 7 and 12 returned. Already, with just these two grades back in class, 775 schools have had to be closed again because of outbreaks. But on 6 July, the ANC government wants to send grades R, 6 and 11 back into class. This was scaled-back at the last minute, delaying the return of a grades 1, 2, 3 and 10 further into July. On 3 August, grades 4, 5, 8 and 9 are due to follow. It is not ruled-out that the Gauteng government will decide to follow its own timetable as the province replaces Western Cape as the epicentre of the pandemic. Having had three months to prepare schools, 3,335 are still without an adequate water supply.

The leaders of the main teacher’s trade unions and the School Governing Boards, after a short-lived show of defiance which reflected pressure from the rank-and-file, quickly fell into line and gave support to the phased re-opening. But many teachers remain opposed.

The ANC government has said that no parent will be forced to send their child back to school. Exemptions can be applied for. This is a cynical move calculated to dissipate the anger of parents and divert it away from possible collective action, into a matter of individual ‘choice’. This policy looks starkly different for middle class households compared to working class ones. Many middle class homes will have the resources (material and human) to ensure that keeping learners at home does not affect their education or cause them to fall behind. This will not be the case for the working class.

The policy also has the potential to sow divisions within families. Some parents investigating exemptions are being told by school managements that, if used, their children will have to re-enrol in 2021 and repeat the entire year. Learners themselves will almost certainly reject this, not wanting the stigma of being ‘held back’, and not wanting to be separated from their peers for the remainder of their schooling. But many households with learners, also have elderly, or other ‘at risk’ relatives, and will want to do everything possible to limit their possible exposure to the virus. The government is encouraging antagonisms between the generations.

Community Control

The fear of “losing the academic year”, the common complaint of government ministers, cannot be the main consideration in the middle of an unprecedented health crisis. The decision of when to open and close schools should be under the control of local communities based primarily on health consideration. The SGBs have shown their willingness to toe the government line. We call for the creation of School Safety Committees made up of democratically elected representatives of teachers, parents and learners from grades 7 and up.

Teachers, and other workers in schools, must be willing to take strike action, in defiance of their national trade union leaders, if necessary. The government’s exemptions, if used collectively, could become a means for campaigning School Safety Committees to close a school. Instead of individual parents, taking individual decisions for their own children, the Safety Committee could organise the mass submission of exemption requests for every learner at the school, in effect forcing a school’s closure. It is essential that teachers, school workers, parents and learners unite and co-ordinate action.

The experience of the return to school of grades 7 and 12 shows that as the pandemic ebbs and flows schools will repeatedly open and close. This situation could last for years. South Africa is still some months away from the peak of its first wave. There will almost certainly be a second, and even a third wave, stretching into 2021. Other pandemics – potentially even more deadly – could arise in the future. Teachers are more than capable of managing the reorganisation of the curriculum through such disruption to ensure that all learners receive their full education.

The new reality shows the urgent need to pandemic-proof communities, including their schools. As we have argued elsewhere, this should be the focus of the government’s Infrastructure Investment Plan. A programme of school refurbishment, and in many cases school rebuilding, could ensure that schools are better prepared to weather this pandemic and others in the future, protecting staff and learners and the communities they live in. For example, every school must be connected to mains water, additional sinks with automatic taps installed, classrooms redesigned to allow for social distancing and the installation of other protective barriers etc. Millions of jobs could be created in such a programme. The ANC government’s slave-labour schemes, such as the EPWP, could be abolished in favour of genuine public works programmes offering training and permanent jobs paid a living wage.

To solve the issue of pandemic proofing communities it is necessary to unleash the vast and untapped resourcefulness and ingenuity of the working class. The management of the crisis by the ANC, and other capitalist parties, will always put the profits and the property of big business first. Lives will continue to be needlessly lost. The wealth and resources of society must be mobilised by building a mass movement that struggles to place measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic under the democratic control of the working class.

The MWP calls upon Saftu to reconvene the Working Class Summit and to implement the resolution adopted at the first summit in 2018, to establish a mass workers party on a socialist programme. Such a party would enable the struggles of working people across the country to be co-ordinated into a mass movement uniting communities, the workplace and the education sector. The pandemic has demonstrated the incapacity of capitalism in South Africa and worldwide, not only to provide protection against health threats, but to provide for the most basic needs. A socialist mass workers party must place the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society on the working class’s agenda.